I’ve never been a big fan of the anti-corruption elixir as a solution to political malaise and democratic dysfunction. Truth is, it can be a toxic and dangerous cocktail for political mobilization, reform and partisan competition.
Everyone can be against corruption. It’s not an ideology nor an organizing principle for political systems. We all oppose corruption—commentators, judges, NGOs, voters… everyone. But is this the way politics should be organized: everyone aligned against the implicated—irrespective of extent, awareness and the law? I don’t write this as a defense of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczinski—who may or may not be guilty of benefiting from kickbacks from the notoriously corrupt Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. This is an indictment of the idea of anti-corruption as a facile magic bullet that will cure Latin American politics and democratic governance. It’s a very dangerous trend.
- Everyone’s against corruption: There was a time when political systems were cleaved by a basic notion of the world order: the relationship between church and state. It was the dividing principle of party systems from Europe to Latin America and with it came the division over the role of the state in promoting economic growth and social development. But those party lines have dissolved. Liberal-conservative divisions have vanished, from France and Germany, to Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela. We are all against corruption now. (Of course, who would be publicly for it? But in private, many anti-corruption crusaders are as corrupt as they come, including the band of Chavistas in power in Venezuela, Michele Temer in Brazil and Jimmy Morales in Guatemala.)
- Prosecuting corruption through the judicial system is not enough: Yes, we all love the Lava Jato investigations in Brazil and CICIG in Guatemala, or—to cast our memories back a bit farther—the post-Alberto Fujimori clean-up of corruption in Peru (pre-humanitarian pardon) from the Fujimori-Vladimiro Montesinos era. But those efforts also stoked popular indignation against the political class without providing a clear pathway for reform; nor did they provide a means for citizens to regain confidence in their political system and its leaders—though they pretended to. Investigations don’t clean up the structural reasons for the mess, even if they do successfully put high-ranking public and private officials in jail. It’s really up to the political system to create objective regulations and enforce them to hold in check the political and personal ambitions of elected and public officials. The fact of the matter is that all the investigations we endorse will only really matter if they can prod politicians to change the system to protect democracy from themselves. I don’t hold out much hope; turning the corner on those judicial investigations to real, meaningful regulatory, legal and state reforms now depends on self-regulating altruism from the very politicians that have benefited from the system for centuries. Good luck with that.
- What comes next? Whether it’s the anti-corruption witch hunts in Brazil, Peru, Colombia or almost any other country in the Americas, in the midst of fraying party systems, the anti-corruption outside crusader jockeying for position in the next elections is not necessarily a democratic alternative. It may not happen during this election cycle, but the rage against corruption too-often leads to extremes on either end of the political spectrum. (Jair Bolsonaro or Hugo Chávez anyone?)
Addressing corruption means reforming institutions, and that depends on politics and on the poor science of political science. Political scientists like to talk a lot about the importance of institutions and institutional strength. But truth is: we don’t know how to create them beyond a set of platitudes, micro-examples of what has worked in specific cases, and general guideposts of what not to do.
Even history is no guide. There are no truly great examples of successful, long-lasting, thorough anti-corruption reforms. The once-lauded Italian anti-corruption reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s still produced the populist Silvio Berlosconi and a welter of anti-corruption fringe parties across the political spectrum, and yet… Italian voters are still not satisfied. According to Pew surveys only 23% of Italian voters say the government is run for the benefit of a majority of Italians. Once-celebrated anti-corruption reformers in Rwanda, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Ukraine, and Venezuela—to name a few—and their supposed efforts to clean up the system ran aground on the structural basis for graft and cronyism, and more than a few have become corrupt and autocratic themselves.
We all need to be careful not to get too excited about the anti-corruption wave in the hemisphere today. In fact, we should be wary. It’s unlikely that the current popular fever will produce the sort of results many of us desire—positive popular mobilization, the engagement of a new generation of clean politicians, broad reform of the institutions that permitted past perfidy, and the restoration of citizens’ trust in politics. In fact, the trends are likely to produce exactly the opposite—self-righteousness, polarization, intolerance, and autocracy. Beware the weaponization of corruption. The wave of anti-corruption sentiment could well become a petri-dish for populism.